Review: Struggling with Evangelicalism

Struggling with Evangelicalism, Dan Stringer, Foreword by Richard J. Mouw. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2021.

Summary: Traces both the author’s personal struggles with evangelicalism and a four step process of healthy struggle involving awareness, appreciation, repentance, and renewal.

If anyone can claim bona fide evangelical roots, Dan Stringer can. He is the biracial son of missionary parents, living in five different countries on three continents during his youth. He embraced the worship music and lingo of evangelical youth ministry in the 1990’s. His undergraduate degree is from Wheaton and one of his graduate degrees from Fuller Theological Seminary. He is ordained in the Evangelical Covenant Church denomination and serves as a team leader for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. There is much he appreciated in this background, and as the years went on, much with which he struggled–political partisanship, racism (why do only whites use this label, typically?), a history of colonialism in his own state of Hawai’i, the ways women have been treated, and the celebrity leader culture.

For Dan, help began as he was able to distinguish between evangelicalism as a “brand” that suffers a poor reputation, and evangelicalism as a space that includes over a half a billion people globally, involving collective responsibility for its care, access from a broad range of people, and opportunity for relationship across divisions, even for those who don’t fit the brand.

As Dan continued to wrestle with ways to address his struggles and wrote and interacted with others, he arrived at a four step process that he unpacks in his book. The steps are:

  1. Awareness. Many who have been part of evangelicalism don’t understand how we got here, so understanding our history and what distinguishes evangelicals from other Christians (and even appreciating that evangelicals are just one part of the larger Christian family) is important. Following a rubric developed by Kristen Kobes Du Mez he discusses evangelicalism as a theological category, a cultural movement with its own particular “style,” a White religious brand (many Black, Latino, and Asian Christians in the U.S. share theological beliefs with evangelicals but don’t share the “brand”), and a diverse global movement. He also discusses what distinguishes the brand from the space. Awareness also includes faith stream awareness, which has to do with how our particular group’s tradition has been formed through its history and location, allowing us better to appraise our strengths, weaknesses, and resources for renewal.
  2. Appreciation drills down on strengths. Stringer defends the decision to focus on appreciation before repentance. Strengths remind us how we got here, the ways God has been faithful, and reasons to hope that what is broken can be redeemed. It’s not an occasion for triumphalism, but a basis for hope and reminder that there is goodness, as well as brokenness in who we are. We remember things like our love for scripture, our experience of God’s presence, our commitment to the whole mission of God, the fellowship of believers, our focus on Christ, and our freedom in him. We remember grace that has brought us this far as both saints and sinners. And it points us in directions where we may strengthen our strengths.
  3. Repentance. Stringer invites us into communal repentance, adding to our sinner’s prayer a sinners’ prayer (where one places the apostrophe is important). The baptism of Jesus by John was a baptism of repentance and yet Jesus had no sins personally to repent of. This was an act of communal repentance. When we repent communally, we listen to others to understand the damage we’ve caused and don’t use a “not all of us” defense, but rather use collective terms to acknowledge our identification with these wrongs, we cry out for God’s deliverance, and begin to take steps befitting our repentance.
  4. Renewal. This section begins by bluntly facing the question of whether evangelicalism is worth renewing. There is not a time before racism in American evangelical history. There are abuses of power and patriarchy to which we would not return. He acknowledges that, for some, it is not their task to renew evangelicalism, whether because of the severity of their wounds or the fact that they have been pushed out. Stringer says that one need not cease to be a follower of Jesus, a Christian, should they decide to leave evangelicalism. Christianity is larger than evangelicalism. But he also offers reasons to seek renewal: to reduce harm and toxicity, to offer and model hope that persists through faith and doubt, to reflect God’s heart rather than the values of worldly empires, and finally to once again offer a credible and compelling witness in the world.

This last speaks powerfully to me. I’ve seen people delivered from addictions and broken relationships and communal hatreds when they encountered Jesus. The gospel of Jesus has been at the heart of movements to abolish slavery and community development ministry. It is at the heart of our love for scriptural preaching and the conviction that a word from God is powerful to transform. These have been strengths and, sadly, we have forgotten them or lost confidence in the work of God evident in them, substituting worldly power, worldly agendas, worldly wealth, and worldly wisdom for the foolishness of the powerful gospel.

I also am grateful for the space Dan Stringer makes for people still wrestling with whether to stay or leave. At one point, he includes a letter to “exvangelicals” (look up #exvangelical on Twitter if you want to learn more). It’s not a letter of criticism or exhortation to return, but one of repentance, that simply acknowledges the wrong done and that we (not they) may listen better. He offers appreciation without triumphalism, repentance without defensiveness, and a hope for renewal without grandiosity. His process offers a way through anger, turmoil, grief, and cynicism toward health, whether it is healthy engagement in a collective responsibility to leave things better than we found them, or how to live constructively as one decides what one’s place inside or outside this movement will be. For me, it has articulated “what it takes to stay.”

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: A Great Reckoning

A Great Reckoning (Chief Inspector Gamache #12), Louise Penny. New York: Minotaur Books, 2016.

Summary: Gamache returns to the Sûreté as Commander of its Academy, and finds himself at the center of a murder investigation of one of its corrupt professors.

*Note: if you have not read previous books in this series, information in this review may include “spoilers” for previous books.

Armand Gamache has figured out his next work after his brief retirement in Three Pines. He has accepted the command of the Sûreté Academy, training future officers. The Academy was where the corruption of young officers began, and his determination was to bring it to an end.

Meanwhile, Reine-Marie has settled down in the village, helping archive its history. She agrees to help Ruth, Myrna, and Clara sort through old papers stuffed in the wall of the Bistro, perhaps a hundred years ago. Among these was an unusual map with a snowman and a pyramid, and a very young Three Pines.

One of Armand’s first duties is to review new candidate applications. He’s drawn to one repeatedly rejected. Amelia Choquet. With her piercings, tattoos, troubled background and poor marks, it seems that it would not be a hard decision. And yet…. In the end, Armand accepts her.

He also makes two unusual decisions. He keeps on the former assistant director at the Academy, Serge LeDuc, as a professor, explaining he knows he is a source of corruption but did not have evidence. He also brings his estranged childhood friend and former superior Michel Brebeuf, who had given way to the corruption of the Sûreté. He also assigns the four students LeDuc is grooming, who “serve” LeDuc (Amelia Choquet, Nathaniel Smythe, Huifen Cloutier, and Jacques Laurin) to figure out the mystery of the map in the wall

Then one of the four student “servants” of LeDuc, Nathaniel Smythe finds him dead of a gunshot to the temple, only the gun is found on the opposite side of his body. The revolver was LeDuc’s and had partial prints of several, including Amelia and Gamache, who claims he never handled the gun, which he would have banned. In a bedside table, a copy of the map of Three Pines is found, and Amelia’s is missing.

With Isabel Lacoste’s permission, Gamache spirits the four students to Three Pines. Is he protecting a murderer? Or is he protecting them from a murderer? Or more sinister yet, is Gamache the murderer? Secrets uncovered by an RCMP observer leads him to suspect Gamache, secrets that involve Amelia Cloquet, secrets Gamache has not spoken of to Reine-Marie.

Lacoste and Jean Guy Beauvoir don’t want to believe it. Meanwhile, the students are learning investigative skills and trying to decide whether Gamache is a weak, perhaps corrupt has-been, or a kind and strong leader, in contrast to the brutal and power hungry LeDuc, who especially has influenced Jacques. All this while chasing down a century old mystery involving one of Quebec’s foremost map makers.

A powerful influence in cleansing the cadets of corruption turn out to be the villagers. It is the power of ordinary goodness, even the FINE goodness of Ruth, who helps Nathaniel and speaks in poetry to Amelia or Olivier and Gabri, who put them to work in the kitchen. With Gamache, the goodness goes deeper. Even as trouble swirls about him, he acts with deliberation, even consideration for the RCMP observer who is preparing to arrest him, and for his childhood friend, Brebeuf. His strength comes from knowing where he is broken, and having grown from it. It comes from knowing that there is a power in kindness and integrity before which brute, corrupt power fails in the end.

On a side note, I find myself noticing more and more the delightful meals interspersed in the action. I suspect Louise Penny loves lingering over good and healthy food. At least her characters do, which seems another kind of goodness that shines through these books, the rich fellowship of the table, where both good food and good friends are savored. These meals punctuate the darkness of murders and corruptions with reminders of the goodness that is greater. And they make the reader hungry!

Review: From Pentecost to Patmos, 2nd Edition

From Pentecost to Patmos, Second Edition, Craig L. Blomberg and Darlene M. Seal with Alicia S. Dupree. Nashville: B & H Academic, 2021.

Summary: A New Testament Introduction covering Acts through Revelation, with introductory material and commentary, review questions and bibliography for each book, useful as a textbook or reference.

Some of the introductory New Testament texts for college or seminary that I have read are dense and turgid reads. Not this new edition in which Craig L. Blomberg and Darlene M. Seal combine up to date scholarship with a highly readable text. The text for each book of scripture includes some of the standard introduction sections including discussions of authorship, date, audience, purpose, genre, and structure. Where relevant, as in Acts, material on textual criticism, sources, and chronology vis a vis Paul are included. A commentary summarizing the text and dealing with textual and interpretive questions follows organized on the basis of the structure provided. Review questions are included for students as well as concluding applications. A select bibliography offers recommendations of advanced, intermediate, and introductory commentaries, as well as other relevant scholarly works on the book in question.

A fifty-eight page introductory article to the Pauline epistles is also included. The first portion covers the life of Paul including the question of the nature of the Damascus road encounter–conversion, call, or commission–or perhaps all three? Then the authors turn to epistolary writing, uses of rhetoric, genres, literary forms, their occasional nature, and the mechanics of letter writing. This part includes with questions about pseudonymity (they judge this lacking acceptance in the first century) and the collection and canonization of Paul’s epistles. They then turn to Paul’s theology, summarizing contemporary discussions of the New Perspective, the question of Paul and Jesus, Paul and the Old Testament and recent scholarship seeing apocalyptic and empire themes in Paul. I thought this an excellent, succinct discussion of Pauline scholarship with all the key figures appearing in the bibliography.

A few highlights of the authors’ discussion of various books may give a flavor of this introduction:

  • While noting the boundary marker treatment of “works of the law” they see a more general reference to Torah-obedience, and justification referring to imputed righteousness–though relational and transformative rather than “impersonal and transactional.”
  • They argue for the unity of 2 Corinthians (an A-B-A structure) with a lost letter between it and 1 Corinthians.
  • They foresee a large scale turning of Jews to Christ foretold in Romans 11 but that this does not require repatriation.
  • They favor the Pauline authorship of Ephesians, with Paul giving an amanuensis greater liberty in writing within directions on topics to address, and that the letter was likely intended to be a circular letter.
  • They survey the discussion of the authorship of the pastorals, often thought to be pseudonymous works. They go with the unanimity of the church fathers and attribute these to Paul, allowing for an amanuensis, perhaps Luke, to account for the stylistic differences.
  • On 1 Timothy 2:11-15, they offer a helpful chart of the interpretive decisions involved in this passage. They do not commit to a view, suggesting the need to hold views tentatively. They propose that even within more traditional interpretations, there are not constraints on women serving on pastoral teams or as part of church leadership. This seems like an attempt to find a via media between complementarian and egalitarian position with a complementarian flavor that will probably satisfy few.
  • I found the outline of James structuring it around three iterations of three key themes quite helpful: trials in the Christian life, wisdom, and riches and poverty. Similarly, seeing Hebrews structured around five warnings was a rubric that seems to arise from the text.
  • Perhaps the most difficult book to square with traditional claims of authorship is 2 Peter, which much of modern scholarship considers late, and pseudonymous, noting the dependence on Jude, and significant stylistic differences. They note the claim of the author to have witnessed the transfiguration, that the stylistic differences argue against pseudonymity, that Symeon Petros in 1:1 is elsewhere used only in Acts 15:14 and sounds like a signature.
  • The treatment of Revelation takes a premillenial, though not dispensational reading.

Overall, the approach is theologically conservative and evangelical, though nuanced and appreciative of other scholarship. Reflective of the publisher, it seems its target audience would be Baptists schools and seminaries and educated pastors and laity. Yet the engagement with other scholarship and views makes it representative of the best of this tradition. It is an introduction where a committed evangelical is able to read with, rather than against, the grain of one’s convictions as it were, while being introduced to the range of scholarship. And as observed earlier, one of the great strengths of this work is the readable, flowing text that one needn’t fight with to understand. It’s greatest challenge comes in the trenchant applications that question how one will live and act on truth outside the study and classroom.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — The Music of Christmas

Some of the Christmas albums from my youth

As I write, I’m listening to the “Instrumental Christmas” station on Amazon. Christmas music is one of my favorite aspects of the season–listening to it, singing it, you name it. I remember our house being filled with Christmas music, mostly from the radio. When I was young and my parents controlled the radio, this would likely be on WFMJ or WKBN. We not only heard Christmas music from Thanksgiving until Christmas, but on the twelve days of Christmas to Epiphany (there are some church traditions that think Christmas Day is when you start singing Christmas carols.)

We still have some of those old LP’s of Christmas music, I think all of them are from the 1960’s. Listening to them take me back. Ray Conniff, Percy Faith, Perry Como (we used to call him Perry Coma because his voice was so smooth and soothing!). Then there were compilations like the one in the upper left of my photo. I read the names and I remember the voices–Ed Ames, Harry Belafonte, Lana Cantrell, Vic Damone. Leroy Anderson’s Sleigh Ride from the Boston Pops is one you still here and we have several recordings of the Boston Pops around the house. The ultimate compilation was the Time-Life Treasury of Christmas. I think this one went with my sister–all 44 songs!

I always thought of O Holy Night as one of the most challenging of Christmas songs on the sing, particularly because of all those high notes. It is kind of the national anthem of Christmas songs. In our youth, Mario Lanza, the opera singer performed one of the most often played versions. All the tenors like Placido Domingo and Lucianno Pavarotti have taken it on as well as many male and female artists. But I think Lanza is still classic as I remember my dad playing this on our dining room hi-fi set or his old Bakelite radio. But it’s OK if someone else is your favorite!

Mario Lanza

Then there were the songs that became Christmas hits in our youth: Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer sung by Burl Ives a part of the Rankin-Bass TV special that debuted in 1964. A few years later came Frosty the Snow Man with the title song sung by Jimmy Durante. The one we still listen to came from A Charlie Brown Christmas, and the timeless jazz music of Vince Guaraldi. “Linus and Lucy,” “Skating,” and “Christmas Time is Here” are songs I still love, especially the latter with the children’s choir. The Little Drummer Boy was immortalized by the Harry Simeone Chorale. Here is a live performance on The Ed Sullivan Show from 1959. For all I know, I probably watched that when it was first aired.

There were live performances, from school Christmas programs to the Nutcracker performances at Powers Auditorium that I took my future wife to see. For several years in college, I sang in our church choir. A special thrill was singing Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus and watch the whole congregation, honoring an old tradition, stand as we sang. It was equally thrilling when we would go to sing to elderly shut-ins or those in nursing facilities and to see the smiles or even the tears as we sang enthusiastically, if not always well, the favorites of Christmas. But the high point, at least in my church tradition was singing Silent Night during Candlelight services on Christmas eve. With dimmed lights we began singing Silent Night as we passed the candle flame from one person to the next until the sanctuary was aglow with the pinpoints of candlelight throughout the congregation. When we finished singing, and extinguished the candles, we were ready for Christmas to come!

What was the music and musical traditions of Christmas that you remember from growing up in Youngstown? I’d love to hear your memories!

To read other posts in the Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown series, just click “On Youngstown.” Enjoy!

Review: Beyond the White Fence

Beyond the White Fence, Edith M. Humphrey. Chesterton, IN: Ancient Faith Publishing, 2021.

Summary: A group of cousins visiting “Gramgon” and a neighbor boy have a series of adventures in which they meet their patron saints, passing through a portal just beyond the garden gate.

It all began with the fawns. Katie, visiting her “Gramgon,” spots them beyond the garden gate at the bottom of the yard. She’s been told not to go into the valley beyond, but is almost irresistibly drawn to them and passes through the gate. There are other animals including turkeys…and a peacock. She follows and discovers she is in a different time and place. She encounters Lady Edith of Wilton, the sister of King Edgar, who has chosen the life of a religious sister. While there, Edith brother is killed, and the neighbor boy, TJ, who had followed narrowly foils an attempt on Edith’s life before the two are led by the peacock to where they can see the garden gate. Katie carries and hides a feather of the peacock.

Subsequent adventures follow as cousins from Pittsburgh join Katie, who is from Kansas. Together or separately, each of the girls sees the fawns and are transported to an encounter with their patron saints — Rachel, Jacob’s betrothed, Ruth and Naomi, Mary Magdalene. Sometimes they simply learn of the faith of these saints, and sometimes there is adventure, for example, rescuing Rachel from kidnappers who would prevent her marriage to Jacob. The end of the visit to Gramgon is coming but Katie has not met her patron saint Katherine yet. Edith is the saint of the author of this work, and presumably Gramgon. One more time they are bidden beyond the garden gate, this time by chimes, only to witness Katherine’s courageous witness before her martyrdom, and glimpse the glory beyond that Katherine would enter.

They carry the peacock feather on each venture, and when the peacock appears, it is time to depart and the way back to their own time is open–and no time has elapsed. The situations they enter are dangerous and the peacock feather and the peacock represent the eyes of the Lord upon them, protecting and guiding.

This Narnia-like story is about the discovery of the saints, our communion with believers who have preceded us, whose lives may instruct us in living the life of faith. I do wonder a bit with Gramgon’s prohibition of these ventures, the whisperings of the children she overhears, and her unconfirmed suspicions. It makes me wonder if Gramgon herself has traveled beyond the gate. Does she realize that the children can only go if bidden? Does she even “cover” for the children when they are weary from ventures?

This is a delightful story, particularly as the cousins become more interested in the backstory of these saints for whom they are named. The climactic adventure, witnessing the martyrdom, is beautifully written, and to be savored.

This story reminded me of a wonderful experience a few years back when I was invited to be present as a friend was baptized and received into the Roman Catholic Church during the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday. Part of the liturgy includes the Litany of the Saints in which we work through a list beginning with the Holy Trinity, Mary, the angels, patriarchs and prophets, apostles and evangelists, the disciples, the innocents, martyrs, the holy bishops and confessors, the doctors of the church, and many more, interspersed with a long list of names in each category.

With each group or saint, we bid, “pray for us.” It is prayed slowly and meditatively and takes a long time. After all, this is part of a vigil on the eve of Easter. I sat in wonder as I heard this “great cloud of witnesses” enumerated and the vision of our solidarity as we run the same race, fight the same battles that millennia of believers before us ran and fought, and now pray for us. It seemed a “thin place” where the veil between us was barely there and we were present to one another. I knew the stories of some, and wondered about those of many others.

There is something in this for all of us–children and “Gramgons” alike. Stories like this one invite us into the literature of the saints, the stories of all those who have gone faithfully before us until whatever end God had for them. It explains the attraction of the stories of martyrs. They remind us of our communion with them, the mysterious fellowship we enjoy, and that we may well be prayed for not merely by our living friends but by many in glory who are heard by the Father who watches over our ways.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: The Idea of a Christian Society

The Idea of a Christian Society, T. S. Eliot. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014 (First published in 1939).

Summary: Three lectures given in 1939 putting forth Eliot’s ideas for a Christian society in the light of rising pagan, totalitarian governments in the pre-World War 2 world.

Most often, T. S. Eliot is known for his poetry, whether the modernist poems like “The Wasteland” before his religious conversion, or “The Four Quartets” afterward. He also gave us “Old Possum’s Book of Cats,” the basis of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical Cats. What is less known is that he gave these lectures articulating his ideas of what a society shaped by Christian premises might be like, and why that might be seriously considered.

The setting of the lectures that form this book is important. They were given in 1939, on the eve of World War 2. The world had already witnessed Communist revolution in Russia, and the rise of national socialism based on an Aryan vision of Germans as a super race. The concern he expresses, as Christianity became a minority opinion in Great Britain which was becoming an increasingly secular state, is that a position of neutrality could not hold. Eliot believed the possibility existed for the rise of a pagan state, nominally democratic (as was Germany) but equally totalitarian in character. He argues that of these alternatives, a Christian state, a Christian society is to be preferred to uphold a moral basis for law and justice.

Perhaps some of the most trenchant things he has to say address the economic structures of the British state, which were far from Christian, privileging a wealthy class at the expense of the flourishing of a broader society. While his proposal is short on practical details of how this would come about, he envisions both a Christian community with a broadly shared Christian vision worked out in shared social morality and a smaller Community of Christians, a group of societal leaders of character and Christian intellect. While he does not think of this in terms of a particular church in broader application but rather an inclusive Christian community, he does think that in the English context, the Church of England offers the best chance for the shared vision and social consensus he would see.

While he does not specify a particular form of government, he sees the commercialized, urbanized, and industrialized society of England as “unnatural” and calls for a kind of “conformity to nature” that anticipates more recent concerns about sustainability. He grounds this in the relationship of nature to the God of nature, severed in modern, mechanized views of the world.

I found myself alternatively fascinated by his prescience and frustrated at other points by what seemed a certain naivete’. He anticipates the structural critiques of democracies and foresees how authoritarian movements can develop in democratic states. He articulates an early form of Christian environmentalism. Yet his assumptions of consensus among Christians and his blindness to the corrupting influence power could have on high-minded Christians, are born out in what we see of the American church of the last fifty years. In Blinded By Might, Cal Thomas wrote about how political influence corrupted early pioneers of the Religious Right. I believe similar narratives might be written of the progressive wing of the church and these divisions give the lie to Eliot’s vision of a consensus of Christians.

What I think Eliot gets right is to raise the question of alternatives, and whether secularity provides a sufficiently robust framework for a just society, for limited government, and the rights of the people. When we move from an assumption of the inherent fallenness and fallibility of human nature to one of the inherent goodness, do we open the door to the attractions and hubris of authoritarian rulers?

But the question remains of how this works itself out in a pluralist society. I don’t think Hauerwas’s stance of prophetic engagement, James Davison Hunter’s faithful presence, or the Christian political activist stance of either the right or the left quite answer the question of what it means to be a Christian in society. Perhaps there is something in Eliot’s call for a Community of Christians who function not as an organization or party but as a “body of indefinite outline, composed of both clergy and laity, of the more conscious, more spiritually and intellectually developed of both.” It seems to me that there is a need for Christian leaders not beholden to political alliances who can think and pray and work and learn from each other across a variety of boundaries, both for renewal in the church and in society. Might Eliot’s vision of national Communities of Christians capture something of what this might look like?

The Month in Reviews: November 2021

Looking through this month’s reviews, I’m struck by how different these books are from one another. A children’s story for Christmas and graphic non-fiction of George Takei’s experiences as a child internee during World War 2. Dark crime fiction, classic mystery, and cozy mystery. A book on “biblical womanhood” and narratives of “power women.” Short stories set in fictional Port William, Kentucky and essays from the streets of New York city. Chicago features in a couple books, one from the 1893 Columbian Exposition and the other inspired by the Modern Wing of the Art Institute of Chicago. One looks at America’s role in the world while another focuses in on a homeless ministry in the small college town of Athens, Ohio, nestled in the foothills of Appalachia. One considers evangelism through American history, another religion departments in colleges turned universities, and a third on a missional theologian. And to top it off, I traveled the Lincoln Highway with four young men both pursued and pursuing their dreams.

After the ApocalypseAndrew Bacevich. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2021. An argument that 2020 represented the final unraveling of the United States’ post-Cold War superpower status and that U.S. policy must change, reflecting its changed status in the world and changing priorities at home. Review

Good Works: Hospitality and Faithful DiscipleshipKeith Wasserman, Christine D. Pohl. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2021. A profile of the key themes that have shaped the hospitable community of Good Works, Inc., a ministry providing shelter and support to people in rural southeastern Ohio. Review

The Making of Biblical WomanhoodBeth Allison Barr. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2021. A study of women in church history and the construction of the idea of “biblical womanhood which underwent a series of developments from the Reformation to the present. Review

The End of CollegeRobert Wilson-Black. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2021. A history of the creation and development of religion departments between 1930 and 1960 as a shift occurred from church affiliated colleges to research universities on the German model, with different aims serving a wider constituency. Review

The Nature of the Beast (Chief Inspector Gamache #11), Louise Penny. New York: Minotaur Books, 2016. A young boy from Three Pines, prone to fantastic tales, reports seeing a big gun with a strange symbol, and then is found dead, setting off a search for a murderer, and an effort to thwart a global threat. Review

T. F. Torrance as Missional Theologian (New Explorations in Theology), Joseph H. Sherrard, Foreword by Alan Torrance. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2021. An examination of the contribution Thomas Torrance’s theological work makes to the church’s understanding of missiology, particularly centered around his understanding of the Godhead, the person of Christ, and Christ’s threefold offices and the church’s participation in them. Review

Power WomenEdited by Nancy Wang Yuen and Deshonna Collier-Goubil, Foreword by Shirley Hoogstra. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2021. Fourteen women who are both mothers and academics write about how they navigate these callings as women of faith. Review

They Called Us EnemyGeorge Takei, Justin Eisinger, Steven Scott. Illustrator: Harmony Becker. Marietta, GA: Top Shelf Productions, 2019. A graphic non-fiction account of the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War 2, through the experience of George Takei and his family. Review

The Devil’s Star (Harry Hole #5)Jo Nesbø. New York: Harper, 2017 (originally published 2003). Detective Harry Hole, still in turmoil over the unsolved death of his partner, is spiraling downward to termination, until asked to work on the case of a serial killer. Review

God in the Modern Wing (Studies in Theology and the Arts), Edited by Cameron J. Anderson and G. Walter Hansen. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2021. Ten Christian artists offer reflections on different pieces of modern art found in the Modern Wing of the Art Institute of Chicago, considering both the faith of the artists and what one might see in their art through the eyes of faith. Review

Watch With Me: And Six Other Stories of the Yet–Remembered Ptolemy Proudfoot and His Wife, Miss Minnie, Née QuinchWendell Berry. Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint, 2018 (originally published 1994). Six short stories and the title novella centered around the Port William resident, Tol Proudfoot and his wife, Miss Minnie and their life on a rural farm, part of the membership of a rural community. Review

In the Shadow of King SaulJerome Charyn. New York: Bellevue Literary Press, 2018. A collection of eleven essays spanning nearly thirty years of Charyn’s literary career, on the New York in which he grew up, his family, other authors and celebrities. Review

The Lincoln HighwayAmor Towles. New York: Viking, 2021. A westward trip of two bereaved brothers to start a new life is interrupted when two prison friends of the older brother turn up and hi-jack their plans. Review

A History of Evangelism in North America, Thomas P. Johnston, editor. Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic, 2021. An account of the history of evangelism in North America through a compilation of articles on key figures, movements, and organizations from the colonial period to the present. Review

Died in the Wool (Roderick Alleyn #13), Ngaio Marsh. New York: Felony & Mayhem Press, 2014 (originally published in 1945). New Zealand member of Parliament Flossie Rubrick is found dead, concealed in a bale of wool from her farm, and Alleyn, working in counter-espionage during the war, comes to investigate because of secret research on the farm. Review

Saint Nicholas the GiftgiverRetold and Illustrated by Ned Bustard. Downers Grove: IVP Kids, 2021. A retelling in verse of the story of the life of the real Saint Nicholas and why he is associated with the bearer of gifts that arrive under our trees on Christmas Day. Review

Thirsting For Living WaterMichael J. Mantel (Foreword by Richard Stearns). Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2021. How a young executive left a promising position to pursue the adventure in faith of providing both clean drinking water and the living water of Jesus throughout the world. Review

The Devil in the White CityErik Larson. New York: Vintage Books, 2004. The story of the Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago juxtaposed with that of a psychopathic murderer, H. H. Holmes, pursuing his sinister seduction of young women within blocks of the fair. Review

Best Book of the Month. Amor Towles The Lincoln Highway was a delight. The relationships, especially of the two Watson brothers and the aspirations of all of the main characters in the story. As different as they were, I came to like them (in contrast to a few less likable characters). In this case, switching from character to character in the narrative just worked, as did the sub-plot of Ulysses. As I commented in the post, sometimes you have to go to New York to get to California!

Quote of the Month. I loved Ned Bustard’s new Saint Nicholas the Giftgiver, retelling the story of Saint Nicholas and how he became associated with the gift giver of Christmas eve:

Nick cared for the church,
serving as their bishop:
he shared with God's people
both the Word and the Cup
And in thanks for grace
from God Almighty,
he gave gifts to the weak,
the sick, and the needy.

This is a wonderful story for Christmas eve and I could see the reading of it becoming a family tradition. I loved Bustard’s woodcut artwork as well.

What I’m Reading. I’ve just finished reading T.S. Eliot’s The Idea of a Christian Society. In briefer form, it strikes me as a societal version of John Henry Newmans The Idea of a University. I’m also looking forward to Edith Humphrey’s Beyond the White Fence, a Chronicles of Narnia type story in which a group of children are transported to meet the saints for whom they are named. From Pentecost to Patmos is a New Testament Introduction to the books of Acts through Revelation. This is a BIG book but full of insight as well as the latest biblical scholarship. The Parables is a study of all of Jesus’ parables, grounded in careful exegesis and yet written plainly and applicatively. A Great Reckoning is Book 12 in the Gamache series. We knew Armand would not remain retired. Now we find out what he decided to do next. Rounding out my current reading is Rick Atkinson’s The British are Coming, on the early years of the War for Independence from 1775 to 1777. I hope the holidays ahead bring both rich times with family and quiet times for reading and reflection–and some new books!

Look for posts this month with my choices of Best Books of the Year as well as my 2022 Reading Challenge.

The Month in Reviews is my monthly review summary going back to 2014!

Review: The Devil in the White City

The Devil in the White City, Erik Larson. New York: Vintage Books, 2004.

Summary: The story of the Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago juxtaposed with that of a psychopathic murderer, H. H. Holmes, pursuing his sinister seduction of young women within blocks of the fair.

The Exposition Universelle of 1889 in Paris captured the attention of the world, not the least for the engineering feat that dominated the vista of this world’s fair, the Eiffel Tower. Not to be done, the United States wanted its own fair and settled on a Columbian Exposition beginning in October 1892 and running through the warm months of 1893. A number of cities were in the running. In the end, Chicago won, and with less that two years to go, had to stage the fair. Two men, noted building architect, Daniel T. Burnham and landscape architect, Frederick Law Olmsted led the effort to turn derelict parkland into a showplace surpassing the Exposition in Paris. Burnham was responsible for the Flatiron Building in New York and Union Station, among other architectural wonders. Olmsted was the mind behind Central Park and numerous parks around the country.

Meanwhile, a truly demonic individual had taken up residence in Englewood, within blocks of Jackson Park, the eventual site of the fair. A medical school graduate from the University of Michigan who left unexplained trouble wherever he traveled found a pharmacy where he could assist, and when the husband died, buy the pharmacy from the wife, who was said to have moved to California but was never heard from again. This was the first of a number of disappearances, mostly of women who had been won by the courtly manners, placid blue eyes, and touches of H. H. Holmes, one of many aliases used by Herman Webster Muggett.

Like many of Erik Larson’s works, the story of the visionary genius of Burnham and Olmsted, and the evil genius of Holmes are told side-by-side. Burnham was the exposition’s director, and his first challenge was to assemble the architectural genius of the country to build the various exhibition halls of the fair, subduing personal rivalries and vanities to get them to design aesthetically beautiful but temporary structures. It was his decision to paint all of them white, creating the “White City” that contrasted with the black city of Chicago to the north, casting a vision for the future city. Olmsted, who thought of landscaping projects in terms of years, had to do this in months, much of it after construction equipment from around buildings was removed, creating walkways and the central lagoon pictured below.

By C. D. Arnold (1844-1927); H. D. Higinbotham – The Project Gutenberg EBook of Official Views Of The World’s Columbian Exposition, Public Domain, via Wikimedia.

Two further factors exacerbated the challenges they faced. One was an economic depression with bank failures and joblessness that threatened attendance. The other was difficult relations with Chicago’s labor unions. Then there was the continuing challenge to erect a comparable structure to Eiffel’s Tower. Various hare-brained schemes were proposed until an engineer by the name of Ferris from Pittsburgh proposed building a huge wheel from which cars would be suspended. As it went up, it looked as if one good wind could knock it over. One of the highlights of the story is the account of a tornadic storm that barely shook it.

While the fair didn’t exceed the Exposition Universelle in attendance, it came close, and might have if not for the Sabbatarians who kept the fair closed on Sunday. In addition to Ferris’s engineering feat, Edison’s incandescent bulbs lit the White City at night, powered by alternating current, a first on a large scale. The fair gave also gave us Cracker Jacks and Shredded Wheat.

Meanwhile Holmes worked his evil in Englewood, erecting his “castle,” a dreary hotel with ground floor businesses, and some very strange features, like an airtight room and a specially designed kiln. Many women disappeared during the exposition, drawn to the newness and freedom of Chicago and inspired by the White City. It is not known how many fell prey to Holmes seductions. Larson focuses in on the deaths of Minnie and Anna Williams, Emeline Cigrand, and his assistant, Benjamin Pitezel and three of his children. Even these may not have come to light were it not for the dogged investigation of a Detective Geyer.

I find fascinating the technique of Larson’s to tell an inspiring story of noble vision next to one of unspeakable evil. Each could well be told separately and have been. To tell these stories together is to remind us that the distance between nobility and evil is never great. Even the fair’s ending points to the hubris of forgetting this reality. During the closing speech, Mayor Carter Harrison, Sr. spoke of expecting to live another fifty years. That night, at his home, a disappointed and crazed office seeker, Patrick Eugene Prendergast, assassinated him. Larson weaves these stories together in a way both historically accurate and alternately fascinating and disturbing.

Review: Thirsting For Living Water

Thirsting For Living Water, Michael J. Mantel (Foreword by Richard Stearns). Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2021.

Summary: How a young executive left a promising position to pursue the adventure in faith of providing both clean drinking water and the living water of Jesus throughout the world.

Michael Mantel thought he had it made. He had married his college sweetheart, found a thriving Christian community, and had risen to a key job in a major company. Then his company awarded a gift to a charitable group digging fresh water wells in Africa, and sent him to observe their work. His life was transformed as he saw the difference access to safe drinking water could make in the life of a village in Senegal.

He agreed with his wife Natalie to walk through a door, taking a leave from his company to work for World Vision in development efforts. After learning the work from funding to community development, he took the position as president and CEO of Living Water International, a ministry that uses an integrated approach of coming alongside people in a country to help with water access, sanitation, and hygiene efforts (WASH) that make a major difference in reducing disease and death from water-borne illnesses and fuel other development efforts. In addition, they are committed to sharing the message of the living water of Christ.

This book narrates a journey from hearing the call to be witnesses, beginning with his Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria, and reaching the ends of the earth. He describes a downward journey as he loses his father, walks along his wife in fighting cancer, faces tests of faith in growing the business, and goes through Hurricane Harvey and sees God provide for his Houston-based organization amid the pressures of so many needs in his own city.

It’s a story of both understanding his own calling and appreciating the breadth of the church. Through work with a couple Christian academics, he learns about appreciative inquiry, in which one learns how to assess the strengths of a community where development efforts are being undertaken, and how one works with a variety of partners inside and outside a community for its flourishing. Then the work of Living Water International gives him the chance to apply these lessons globally, glimpsing the bigness of God’s vision for the world, learning how God is already at work with churches abroad as well as awakening churches here through engagement in God’s mission. He contend that it is in this work of God’s entire body that the oneness of the church is truly experienced.

The book is filled with inspiring stories, not only of Mike and Natalie, but also of churches both here and around the world. But the aim of the book is to encourage readers to reflect on how God is meeting them in their own story. Each chapter both is a reflection and invites reflection in thought, writing, and discussion with others. It is both an encouraging and dangerous book, particularly if read with a group seeking to discern how they might walk into God’s vision for the world, his great story. Read this one if you dare!

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — George L. Fordyce

George Lincoln Fordyce, Photo from The Youngstown Vindicator, June 25, 1931 via Google News Archive

Most of us remember big downtown stores like McKelvey’s and Strouss-Hirshberg’s. There were a number of other stores along Federal Street in the first part of the twentieth century that are now fading memories. Among these were stores in several locations along West Federal Street operated by George Lincoln Fordyce.

Fordyce was born in Scipio, New York, in Cayuga County on September 29, 1860 to John and Louisa Horton. His first job was trapping rabbits. By age 10, he was working at a general store in Scipio. Eventually he moved to Auburn, working at another store and the Cayuga County National Bank.

He moved to Youngstown in 1883 and opened a women’s wear store in the Arms Building at West Federal and Phelps, a building he eventually owned, which became known as the George L. Fordyce Block. He continued to expand his dry goods business, selling women and men’s clothing, linens and fabric by the yard for those making their own clothing. This was about the same as G. M. McKelvey’s got started.

In 1907 he acquired the Osborne store at West Federal and Hazel Streets, moving the stock to his location under the name The Fordyce-Osborne Company. After a huge inventory reduction sale in early 1912 liquidating much of the remaining Osborne inventory, the store operated as the George L. Fordyce Company until his death.

Ad from The Mahoning Dispatch, January 12, 1912 via the Library of Congress

Having reached the ranks of business leaders in downtown Youngstown, he exercised leadership in a number of other Youngstown civic affairs. He served as a director of Dollar Savings and Trust, First National Bank, and Ohio Leather Company. In 1912 and 1913, he was president of the YMCA, the first president of the local Boy Scouts Council and president of the Youngstown Hospital Association for twenty-three years. In this last role, he oversaw the development of both the Northside and Southside hospitals. He also was a member of the building committee for the Reuben McMillan Library.

Fordyce’s continued to be a favorite place to shop because of events like that recounted by Howard Aley in A Heritage to Share: The Bicentennial History of Mahoning County and Youngstown, Ohio, from 1921:

“Santa Claus Came to Fordyce’s”

 Evidence that the characters in the Santa Claus scene have undergone change over the years is found in the fact that on December 12th, a number of Santa’s surrogates arrived via the Erie Railroad to prepare the way for the later arrival of the jolly old gentleman himself. Chris Claus, brother of Santa, and “Toofy”, his companion, whose job it was to look after Santa Claus’s mail during the rush hours, came in via railroad because ‘they ran out of snow about 200 miles north of here and were compelled to forsake the reindeer and dog teams.’ Some 200 children met the pair at the railroad station and escorted them to the George L. Fordyce Store where Santa maintained local headquarters until Christmas. There were so many adults in the crowd, pushing and shoving to get their children’s letters into the hands of Santa Claus that the reception committee was lost in the crowd and the ropes that were intended to hold back the crowd proved utterly ineffective. In regard to the effect of the Santa Claus traditon upon children, Superintendent of Schools O. L. Reid said it should be encouraged. ‘Whatever tends to develop or prolong imagination is well worth while’, he told members of the Sunday School Institute at Central Christian Church” (p. 241).

In researching Fordyce, I discovered he was as well known for his love of birds as for his business leadership. When he was fourteen, his doctor told him that a key to maintaining his health was fresh air, and ornithology gave him a pursuit that allowed him plenty of opportunity for fresh air. He was walking the trails of Mill Creek Park long before Lindley Vickers. He was an expert on identifying every species of local birds and led the annual bird censuses for Mahoning County and was a member of the American Ornithologist Union. In 1944, his portrait was hung in Deane Collection of Ornithologists in the Library of Congress, a mark of his status among fellow ornithologists.

He was also a devoted but not competitive golfer. However, in 1929, his daughter Louise was among the top six golfers in the country.

His health declined in his later years, which may have been a factor in the sale of his stock by C. A. Lockhart, the “Father of the Bargain Sale” in 1929. Shortly after, the store closed at its West Federal and Phelps location to re-open at 15 West Federal, where it was operating at the time of his death. Here is an ad from the store on the day after his death, noting that they would close early on the Saturday before the Fourth of July for the funeral service of their founder:

He died 12:05 am on June 25, 1931 at his home at 40 Lincoln Avenue. Dr. William Hudnut of First Presbyterian Church conducted his funeral service and he was buried among many other Youngstown leaders at Oak Hill Cemetery.

I’ve not been able to find any information about how long the business lasted after his passing, but my sense is that it was not long. Some of the institutions, like the YMCA and the library continue to be a vital part of Youngstown. Others, including the business he led for 48 years are memories. He fostered not only commerce but beauty in his love of nature and, particularly, bird-watching. He was among the early Youngstown leaders who recognized that healthy business and civic institutions and natural beauty made Youngstown a great place.

To read other posts in the Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown series, just click “On Youngstown.” Enjoy!